At the very least , The Coalition's Gears of War 4 multiplayer beta should ease any concerns that the series might not be in capable hands, following the departure of previous development company Epic Games. However, the beta falls short in achieving much more than that. It's very safe and very much a case of "more Gears" but it's also just a small taster of the game's multiplayer mode and not nearly enough to be a real cause for celebration.
It's the absence of invention that leaves a slightly bitter after-taste, rather than the presence of anything abject or questionable. All the usual Gears tropes are present and correct in the beta – plentiful chest-high walls, chainsaw bayonets, people exploding like crash test dummies made of dog food. It's all here and, thankfully, it's as good as it ever was.
The new beta consists of three maps and three modes: Team Deathmatch (in which teams deplete their opponents' stock of respawns), a co-operative Team Deathmatch against "hardcore AI" and Dodgeball, with the latter providing a new mode in which players only respawn when a teammate gets a kill, and continues like this until one team is completely eliminated. Matches take place between COG forces, including the new games' protagonists and the Swarm, who look pretty much exactly like the supposedly extinct Locust race from the original games.
Team Deathmatch reveals all you need to know about Gears 4 at this stage. The constant 60fps naturally makes the game noticeably smoother than Gears' Xbox 360 days, but other than that, the whole experience is as you remember. Players move at the same speed, the animations appear identical in many instances and so too do many of the in-play sound effects.
But, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Gears has always been a robust, often extemporary third person cover shooter. It could even be argued that on a purely mechanical basis it has never been bettered. To take a modern example, and, granted there are differences, Tom Clancy's The Division doesn't do cover-based combat nearly as well as Gears' masterful gameplay.
Familiarity might be the best order of the day, however, as when a beloved franchise is handed to a new lead developer, fans are going to have concerns. Ultimately the best – and simplest – way to remedy that is to give those fans the game they know and love.
Dodgeball, meanwhile, is a great new mode that suits the Gears arena perfectly, creating tense moments as players turn the tide of a match with few reckless rolls and some precision shotgun fire. It's a mode that would fit well in most shooters, but works particularly well with Gears' approach. However, it's one of only two parts of the beta that feel fresh, alongside Bounties that can activated between games for rewards - tasking players with winning a match, accumulating a certain amount of points during a match and other challenges like that.
It's also important to recognise that this is "just" a small portion of the multiplayer. The competitive side of a game can often differ a great deal from the single player, so it would be unwise to read much into the multiplayer map locations or design. To use a crude example of how things can change between modes, it makes sense for the multiplayer to be more brightly lit than the single player, so what's going on within a game being as clear as possible for the players involved.
Gears of War 4's beta is fun and certainly worth a try at some point between now and 1 May when it reaches its conclusion. If the final product is as light on ingenuity as the beta then there will be problems. But at this early stage, it's good to know that Gears is back and being developed by a team that understands the fundamentals of what makes it work, and the winning formula that makes it such a popular series.